By Mark E. Smith
Much of my life is spent around those like myself who have physical disabilities. And, because I have faced adversity in my life, many have turned to me for understanding, reassurance and comfort. After all, if you look at me – body twisted, spastic in my power wheelchair – I personify adversity.
Yet, while I know of my adversities – and, yes, some components of adversity are universal – I can never fully understand someone else’s adversities. While two individuals may even have the exact same disability, condition or other life circumstance, what I’ve learned over decades of sharing stories of adversity with others is that no two experiences are the same.
This raises several intriguing questions. Firstly, if no two experiences are the same, how do we meet the innate need for connection with others in the face of adversity? And, secondly, how do we support others in their times of adversity when we haven’t had the exact same experience?
The answer to both these questions is a singular one: empathy. Empathy is an amazing human capacity because it allows us to connect with others on the most genuine levels, where it’s not about relating to an exact circumstance, but truly relating to the person who’s experiencing that circumstance in his or her own way. So, you may wonder, how have I done that in my own life? After all, I was born with cerebral palsy, so how can I relate with a mother who was able-bodied till age 36, then paralyzed from the chest, down? Yes, they’re both disability experiences – but vastly different.
The first interpersonal connection I make is to try to best understand the other individual’s perspective. I mean, can you imagine what it emotionally and psychologically feels like to be the nurturer and caregiver to your children and spouse, and now you’re physically unable to fulfill those roles in many ways? I know, we want to swoop in and rescue and say, “As a mother and spouse, you’re more than your body, and everyone views and loves you just the same.” And, it’s true – but that’s not empathizing with the person’s real, valid emotions. I’ve said in this exact situation, “I can imagine how difficult it is to have gone from the caregiver to needing caregivers. That’s a harrowing life transition. How are you dealing with that?” When we approach others’ adversities by letting them know we’re striving to see their situations from their perspectives, it creates true connection and validation – invaluable aspects of empathy.
This leads to the other aspect of empathy: being truly present in the other person’s time of adversity. No, I don’t know what that recently-paralyzed 36-year-old mother is literally going through – I’ve never experienced it and no one has ever been in her exact circumstance, either. However, I’ve made it through harrowing times in my life and there’s common humanity in that. And, so there’s the remarkable ability to quietly relate with someone, not on a circumstance level, but a human level. This is a scary place. I know scary places, so I’m just going to hold your hand as you move through it.
In these ways, through my decades around disability – both in my profession and in my personal life – I’ve learned a lot about being there for others. Empathy isn’t about having gone through an exact experience. Rather, empathy is about striving to understand another’s perspective and embracing him or her as-is, wherever he or she is in the midst of adversity. If we do that, we navigate toward the most uniting experience of them all: shared human experience.